In A Wide Sky, Hidden
by William Ledbetter
Warm liquid gurgled away and the kettle field winked off, leaving me naked, wet, and trembling in the soup kitchen’s receiving chamber. My traveling companion, Roger, waited with clothes. Humanoid in shape but impossibly thin, his eight-foot-tall metallic figure moved with an almost liquid grace as he stooped to help me into the robe. My new skin felt raw against the thick fabric, but, like the chills, was caused by the transfer and only temporary.
“Is she here?” I said while bending down to pull on a pair of quilted boots.
“No obvious signs,” Roger said and handed me a glass of bourbon.
I took a long sip and moaned as its burn saturated me from the inside out.
“Thank you,” I muttered.
His bulbous head nodded a slight acknowledgement. “You should really drink something else upon reconstitution,” he said. “Tea, perhaps. That really doesn’t help.”
“No obvious signs of her? What does that mean?” I said.
“Skimmer forty-eight found something interesting. I’ll be able to tell you more when its full report arrives in about five minutes.”
I looked up at his smooth, featureless face hovering two feet above mine. Even after nearly eighty years of association and friendship, my human hindbrain still expected facial expressions when I looked at him. Finally, when he offered no further information, I shrugged and took another sip.
It wasn’t real bourbon, only a molecule-by-molecule reconstruction from local materials, but unlike a human mind instantaneously transferred into a soup-kitchen body via a quantum link, no method could reinstall the soul into the body of bourbon. In other words, I had tasted real aged Kentucky bourbon on Earth and flattered myself by thinking I could tell the difference.
Finally starting to feel warm, I sealed the robe and crossed to the exterior door. When I touched the handle, my shell activated then expanded as I stepped outside. The nano-cloud shell protected me from microorganisms, radiation, and temperature extremes but did not block the wind. Roger had, for this very reason, landed our soup-kitchen module on a windy plateau, high in a craggy mountain chain that formed a rocky archipelago on this mostly oceanic world.
I crossed to the precipice with arms spread wide. My robe snapped and fluttered, an alien sound amid the simple mutterings of rock, water, and wind. I knew when I found Regina, it would be on a world with strong winds. Like this one.
Of course, wind alone wasn’t enough. She also loved color and this was a lifeless, monochromatic place. Six hundred feet below, white spray from a gray ocean boomed against black basalt walls. Even the sky was a thick, milky gray all the way to the horizon. I had personally surveyed seven hundred and eight water-based worlds, only twelve of which had life. Living planets always had water, but water-rich planets didn’t always spawn life. If this world was indeed dead I would not grace it with a name, only a catalog number.
Roger shifted next to me, then bent down to speak. “Skimmer forty-eight completed its report. Apparently it found no microscopic life, either in the air or water, but has found what it’s calling ‘engineered macro-life.’” Before I could ask for clarification, he continued, “There is some rather confusing video, but you know how excitable skimmers can be when they find life. I suspect it might be easier to just go see for ourselves. Are you ready to fly?”
I tossed back the last of my bourbon and threw the glass into the sea. My shell contracted around me and the air inside grew denser as we lifted into the sky. I followed Roger to the south and gained speed, but my thoughts were of my long-missing sister.
Regina was nineteen years older than me and only came home to visit a few times each year, so when she arrived for my tenth birthday party, I was ecstatic to learn she would be staying the entire summer. The day after my party, she packed up some gear and took me on an overnight hike.
“Where are we going?” I asked as we trudged through the waist-high puff grass that filled the prairies of Calliope’s central plateau.
She pointed ahead of us to a hill that was the highest point on my parents’ five-thousand-acre farm. I had seen it from home and from the air but never been there.
“It’s my special place,” she said. “I want to share it with you.”
When we arrived, I found that the summit transitioned from grass-covered hillock to a jagged, rocky cliff on the side facing away from our house.
Regina dropped the backpack and half-ran, half-skipped out onto the broad rock shelf, where she spread her arms and turned in slow circles. The wind whipped at her hair and clothes, giving her the appearance of flying. Pure joy lit her smiling face.
I followed and let the wind take me, too, though not with the abandon Regina showed. At the time I’d been worried about falling off the edge.
She eventually opened her eyes and wrapped me in a big hug. “I love this place. I’ve really missed it.”
“Then why do you keep leaving?”
She almost never talked to me like I was a kid, but this time she just gave me another hug and said, “The galaxy is a big place. Someday you’ll understand.”
We set up a tent and built a fire, but what I remember most about that night—and all twelve nights we spent on the hill that summer—is the stars. From that hilltop they looked thicker and brighter than anyplace else. So while Regina danced in the wind, I lay on my back staring up at the Milky Way.
Our last night on the hill, she lay beside me and we talked until very late. That’s when I told her I wanted to be an explorer.
“I want to be the first human to see all those planets,” I said. “I want to be the next Juanita Hernandez, and if there are intelligent aliens out there, I want to find them.”
“I think it would be a wonderful way to live your life,” she said and squeezed my hand.
We flew through a rainstorm and as my irritation at Roger for dragging me halfway across the planet grew, I saw my first bit of color. A rainbow, very faint, yet its colors looked brilliant against the bland sky. Focused as I was on that simplest of pleasures, I nearly missed what Roger wanted me to see.
He slowed and pointed.
At first I thought we were watching another rainbow, then I realized it was moving. Streamers, bands, and sheets of brilliant color filled the sky just south of us. They appeared to flow up out of the roiling ocean, as if the waves themselves had taken on some active and colorful life that involved reaching high into the sky.
As we drew closer, I could see the swirling bands were made up of small, individually fluttering segments. They looked alive. Roger stopped well clear of the phenomenon, but being less cautious and knowing my shell would protect me, I kept going until enveloped in a confusing, whirling storm of flying color.
They appeared biological, or if not, at least a convincing simulacrum. Each was the size of my wide-splayed hand and resembled gossamer-winged fairies of green, red, gold, purple, and orange. Instead of beating wings, they had pinwheel blades that cupped or flattened in the wind, sending them spiraling through the currents like brilliant schools of reef fish.
My heart beat faster and my fingers twitched. The way these brightly colored things used the wind they had to be my sister’s handiwork. If she wasn’t here still, then she had been.
“Are they robots?” I asked over the comm-link. “Is that why the skimmer called them ‘engineered life’?”
“I’m not sure yet. Passive scans don’t pick up any electromagnetic radiation. No evidence of radio or laser communication between the individual units. And the fliers don’t range very far beyond those lily-pad things on the surface. I think there’s a connection. I’m going down closer to the water for samples and to observe.”
I floated among the dancing colors and tried not to jump to conclusions, but it could be the first trace of Regina in nearly a century.
During the years following my tenth birthday, we always made the trek out to the hilltop when she returned home, but as her reputation for large-scale, grandiose artistic projects spread, those visits grew less frequent. The year I turned twenty, Regina had been on Peppermint developing her biggest, most ambitious, most secret project ever and invited me to come see the launch.
I had never traveled via soup kitchen before and the idea of having my body destroyed in one place and rebuilt light-years away terrified me, but humanity had traveled that way for hundreds of years. Having never found a way to beat the light-speed barrier, we are forced to travel between quantum-linked boxes as nothing but information. Fortunately, we are very good at moving information.
Regina collected me from Peppermint’s soup-kitchen complex and took me on a quick tour of the capital city. Most of the planet’s native plant life emitted a peppermint-like scent that filled the air, making me sneeze and sniffle for most of the afternoon, but it didn’t matter, because I always had fun with Regina. She still looked twenty-five. Like most adults, she took advantage of the soup kitchen’s ability to store physical structure templates, so every time she transferred between devices, her body was rebuilt using the younger template. I had saved one, too. If I ever wanted to look this age again, I could.
Though honored to be invited and amazed like the rest of Peppermint’s populace at Regina’s spectacle, I’d been quietly dismayed when she launched the kites. Thousands of them, each over a kilometer wide and carefully designed to not have detrimental impacts on the local biosphere. They were translucent, nearly invisible during the day, but for ten nights that summer they filled the sky over Peppermint’s capital with scintillating, glowing colors reminiscent of an aurora borealis. The high-altitude winds also made her kites sing in an eerie, faint contralto.
I walked the streets one night during her show. Aside from the occasional tinkle of dinnerware or a cough from balconies and terraces, the entire city was deathly quiet. Regina’s kites were amazing and beautiful, but I was also disappointed. I’d left my birth world for the first time and had looked forward to seeing the stars in the sky of a planet eighty light-years closer to the galactic core.
The last night of her show, Regina collected me and we took a jumper out to a deserted hill nearly a hundred miles from the city, where the peppermint smell of native vegetation nearly overpowered my nose. From there, her kites were just a dim, flickering glow. Then, at midnight, they faded out entirely, leaving the sky dark and thick with stars.
“I’m hoping one side effect of my light show will be to make people also appreciate this beautiful sky once my lights vanish.”
She always formed plans within plans like that.
“I made you something,” I said and fished the long string of tiny beads from my pocket, then handed it to her. She gasped, carried it over to the jumper, and switched on the lights.
“Oh, this is beautiful,” she muttered. “They’re all planets and each one is different. Are they . . .”
“Yeah, each one is a geographically accurate reproduction of a settled planet. All four hundred and nine of them.”
“But the colors. They’re amazing!”
“Yeah, they’re glass, but assembled at scale with the correct colors. You should see it under magnification!”
She gave me an enormous hug and wiped her eyes. “This is the best gift I’ve ever received. It’s amazing. And beautiful. You’re quite an artist. Thank you.”
After putting it on, she shut off the lights and we returned to the hill.
“I talked to Mom last month and she told me you’d decided to make custom jewelry instead of exploring,” she said. “You’re obviously very good at it, but why the change of heart?”
“The whole explorer thing was kind of a childish idea,” I said, turning away from her and looking at the thick band of the Milky Way.
“For the last ten years you’ve thought of nothing else. Are you sure you didn’t cave in to peer pressure? Mom seems to think it was one particular girl who laughed at you.”
“No! I just grew up. I stopped wanting to be a circus clown, too, and nobody hassled me about that decision.”
“Okay, I just needed to hear it from you,” she said.
We lay on the ground staring at the sky and I found myself getting angrier.
“And damn it, you’re all just big hypocrites! I mean, Mom and Dad live on a backwater planet having babies and raising them. You create art on a grand scale. You’re both contributing to humanity with things that AI and machines can’t do. Why are you all pushing me to do a robot’s job? Why can’t I contribute something of value?”
“Since when do you think exploring isn’t valuable?”
“You know what I mean. Exploration has been handled by robots for hundreds of years. It’s pretty much just a matter of collecting information and cataloging it. There is no real romance or excitement to that. Not like in the old books.”
She took my hand and squeezed it, the way she did when I was a kid. “There are six hundred billion humans scattered throughout the spiral arm. So many people and yet they are mostly bland and the same. Be different. It’s fun to surprise people. Dare to be unique!”
When I didn’t reply, she was quiet for a while, then said, “What’s her name?”
“The selfish girl who wants you to stay on Calliope with her and not explore the galaxy.”
I stood up and brushed off my clothes, suddenly hating the smell of peppermint. “I’m ready to go back.”
I spent the rest of that night getting drunk and slept in the next morning. When I woke up, I found a handwritten note waiting for me.
COME FIND ME. —Regina
I assumed she meant to find her for breakfast or lunch, but as I learned from the local news, she had taken advantage of the media focus on her show and staged a dramatic disappearance. Her statement, sent to the local press and soon spread across all settled space, was simple yet mysterious and teasing.
“I have found a world of my own. It will be my masterpiece.”
Roger handed me a small stasis box containing a red pinwheel. “They are biological,” he said. “But as I suspected all along—since there isn’t a global biosphere—they are engineered, not naturally evolved. Of particular interest to you and your search, they contain recombined DNA from Earth. So far I’ve identified starfish, dragonfly, squid, and about a dozen others.”
I stared at the little animal, its movement and metabolism suspended for study. “But Regina wasn’t a biologist.”
“It’s only an estimate—I would need some extended observation time to be sure—but their biology suggests they breed and spread quickly. I suspect they’ll fill the planet in another hundred years. It’s hard to be certain without knowing the size of the initial seed population, but I also estimate that they started spreading naturally about eighty years ago.”
Roger continued talking. Something about those lily-pad things processing the minerals in the seawater using sunlight and providing food for the pinwheels, which in turn acted as bees or butterflies and cross-pollinated the lily pads. Though he was obviously fascinated by the setup, I couldn’t focus on his words. My mind roared and my pulse raced.
The timing was too much of a coincidence. Regina wasn’t a biologist, so she might have needed those extra years to learn what she needed to know and then perfect her design. “A world of my own,” she had said. “My masterpiece.” This was a dead planet, with plenty of wind and water. A blank canvas for a living piece of art that could last forever.
“She’s here,” I whispered.
“I think it’s highly likely,” Roger said. “Or at least she’s been here in the past.”
“Let’s find an island closer to these critters, move the soup kitchen down here and set up a shelter,” I said, still really not focusing on the present.
“It’s already on the way.”
I nodded and opened the stasis box. The pinwheel twitched, then shuddered and finally sprang into the air with more vigor than I’d expected.
I had been slow to take up the search for Regina. I was young and went back home to the girl, but during the next few years that ended, and when Regina never returned, my curiosity and a desire to see her eventually won out.
Within hours of her announcement, serious searchers with DNA sniffers tracked her through three jumps to a quantum hub on Juanita’s Rest. If she jumped to a soup kitchen connected to that hub, she must return to the same hub. That is the only way the quantum entanglement works. Like most hubs, it had a maximum of five hundred connections, but only four hundred and ninety-nine of those connections were registered. No one knew the destination code for connection two hundred and seven.
The wildest speculation hinted that she took a slow ship, or used some new technology, but most just decided to await her return. It was easy enough for news services to keep DNA sniffers deployed at the hub. She had to pop up eventually.
Knowing her departure hub was covered, I started searching the cataloged worlds that weren’t settled. That was when I found something surprising. Humanity has never found a way to beat the speed of light, but we’re able to pump great speed into small, quantumly entangled robotic probes. In true von Neumann fashion, our probes arrived in a new star system, used in situ resources to build copies of themselves that were also connected to the entangled network, and then launched themselves at the closest stars to repeat the process. For centuries, humanity’s frontier advanced steadily in all directions. Then it stopped.
Someone had realized the transport network contained ten thousand new gates that had never been used. A law passed requiring a human or independent AI to physically visit new systems and approve the next wave’s launch. Unfortunately, no one appeared to care. Except, of course, for Roger and me.
We found an island only a few miles from the westernmost edge of the pinwheel flock and I sat on a rock, watching the soup kitchen turned construction robot as it built our shelter. Scavenger robots floated in a holding pattern near the soup kitchen, waiting their turn to drop minerals into the hopper and then zip off to find more. I too loitered near the site, but only in anticipation of the bed’s completion. I really needed a nap.
Roger stopped supervising the construction from the other side and abruptly strode toward me.
“Skimmer four-four-five thinks it might have found Regina’s base of operations.”
I leapt to my feet and almost fell over backward.
“Don’t get too excited,” Roger said. “It also says there are no working power sources and it appears inactive.”
Regina’s island resembled a crooked rock finger soaring two hundred feet into the gray sky, and once we neared the pinnacle I understood why the skimmers had initially missed her base. A horizontal slot had been cut deep into the side of the stone and hidden in shadow. We landed on a narrow ledge created by the cut, but I could see only vague shapes until I stepped inside the cave.
I shivered in the cold interior and ordered my shell to produce some light. The disassembled remains of an antiquated soup kitchen squatted in one corner. Its modules—still connected to the skeletal frame by cables—were pulled out in various directions like entails dragged from a vulture’s dinner.
Stacked crates with labels describing concentrated proteins sat against the deepest wall. She must have used those to make food or build her first pinwheel critters. A small habitat occupied the corner opposite the soup kitchen. A table, an overturned chair, and various mechanical devices littered the remaining open floor space. Dust covered everything.
I moved past the clutter to the habitat. If she’d left any kind of records or notes, I’d find them there. Grime coated the habitat windows and the door squeaked when I pulled it open. The interior was small and littered with spools of wire, paper books, racks filled with equipment, and a narrow bed containing a long-dead human body.
I gasped and stumbled backward. In my one hundred and twenty-two years of life, I had never seen a dead person. Death was rare. There were religious sects who refused soup-kitchen travel, so their members could never be rejuvenated and lived out normal human lifespans, but I didn’t know any. And sometimes people died in accidents, but I had never seen that happen, either.
The rational part of me knew this had to be my sister. But I couldn’t reconcile the smiling, animated person who had dominated my memory far longer than I’d even known the actual woman with this slack-jawed, mummified face buried in a nest of tangled white hair.
That thing couldn’t be Regina.
Then I saw the colorful glass beads circling her neck.
Roger entered, took a quick look around, then knelt next to the bed. He grew a flat, wand-like device from one hand and passed it along the body.
“She apparently died of old age,” he said and turned toward me. “I’m sorry.”
I blinked away stinging tears. “Are you sure it’s . . .”
He stood, put a hand on my shoulder, and gave a gentle squeeze. “Yes. The DNA match is one hundred percent. She’s been dead around forty years. Which means she would have died at a physical age of about ninety.”
A strange numbness filled me. I’d been looking for so long. The search for her had not only dominated my life, it had become my life.
I knelt next to her, touched the cold, papery skin of her arm, and shivered.
“Are you sure it wasn’t an accident or disease that killed her?”
“The state of her bone, teeth, hair, and nails indicate that she was very old when she died. It’s difficult to know the exact cause without a full autopsy, and even then most of her soft tissue has—”
“She’s lying twenty feet from a fucking soup pot,” I whispered.
“It’s been disassembled and modified,” Roger said. “She apparently used it to cook up her colorful little animals. The quantum-link module had been detached. Once that loses power, the link can never be reestablished.”
“She did this on purpose?”
“Then it’s like she committed suicide. She knew I would eventually come. Why did she want me to find her like this?”
He said nothing, just squeezed my shoulder again. I looked up at him, suddenly angry that I couldn’t drag more meaning from that blank face.
I stood abruptly, feeling dizzy and suffocated, then pushed past Roger to leave the habitat. Once in the cave, I kept going out into the waning sunlight. Looking around, I saw what I knew had to be there: rough steps cut into the stone leading up.
I followed them to the summit, where I found a flat spot on a protruding finger of rock that reminded me of the ledge we’d stood on all those years ago. Without even thinking, I spread my arms and let the wind whip and pummel me.
Roger appeared at my shoulder, but said nothing.
The wind blew my tears along strange tracks. They went into my hair and even my ears, chilling me to the core. And I didn’t know if I cried for losing her or being fooled by her grand deception.
“I don’t understand. She gave up her family and did all of this for a single piece of art. A statement. Was all of this just something to put her in the art history books?”
Roger remained quiet.
“I mean, what if I hadn’t . . .” I stopped, a sudden and sickening realization settling over me. “She knew I would come looking for her. Did she trust me to find her before she died?”
“Possibly,” he said. “But if you’d found her alive, would she have gone with you?”
I thought about that as the wind buffeted me and I stared out over the gray ocean. Her masterpiece wasn’t finished. Would she have wanted her fans, critics, and press to come pouring in here before the planet filled with her living color? Could she have returned and kept her planet hidden?
Dare to be unique, she had said. It made my head hurt, or maybe that was from the tears.
“Will you help me bury her?” I said.
I woke up with stars still in the sky but dawn touching the horizon. My back hurt from lying on the stone and my skin felt raw from the wind. Roger sat on the precipice—between me and the edge—with legs dangling into the darkness. Just in case I’d rolled that way in my sleep? He did things like that.
Earlier in the night, we moved our soup kitchen to Regina’s rock and used its construction tools to cut a tomb into the back wall of the cave. We placed my sister inside and closed it up. I then looked through her things, but after finding no journal or electronic records, we used a small army of assemblers to seal the cave with a concrete wall that blended almost perfectly into the native rock. Someday her camp would be of historical interest, but I wanted it undisturbed until I was ready to show it to the galaxy.
I stood up, brushed the dirt from my robe, and was suddenly surrounded by fluttering, swirling pinwheels. I stood on the cliff, arms spread, embracing the wind and the creatures my sister had given her life to birth. They swept up from the sea in undulating cascades, driven hard by a stiff morning wind, and it was easy to see the sky filled with them, changing a gray, dead world into layers of living color. In another hundred years, this planet would be spectacular.
I pulled the necklace from my pocket, rolled the beads between my fingers for a few minutes, then slipped it over my head. Regina had never really been lost. Her dancing and laughter rode the wind of every world I explored.
“I think I’ll name this world Zephyr,” I said and looked up again. The brightest stars were still visible in the growing dawn.
Roger stepped up beside me and I knew what he was going to say.
“What will you do now?”
During all the years I’d known Roger, I insisted I would go home and stop exploring once I’d found my sister. She had been my official excuse. Being a personal quest, I never had to justify why I took on a task that could be performed by machines. But Roger knew my reasons were deeper or he wouldn’t have asked.
“Have you given the order to build launch lasers and more probes for the next wave?” I said.
“Not yet. I didn’t want to go on alone.”
I turned and smiled at him in the dark. “So where do we go next?”
“Probe 749978 finished its deceleration burn five days ago and entered orbit around a small living world. The skimmers are all excited. They’ve found plants resembling trees with odd structures in their branches. Probably animal nests of some kind.”
I shivered, but this time not from the cold.
“Only one way to be sure,” I said and waved him toward the soup kitchen.
My sister might no longer be lost, but there were other beautiful souls waiting for me out there. I took one last look at the living color filling her world, then braced for the cold and went to find them.
About the Author
William Ledbetter is a Nebula Award winning author with more than seventy speculative fiction stories and non-fiction articles published in four languages, in markets such as Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Escape Pod, Baen.com, the SFWA blog, and Ad Astra.
He’s been a space and technology geek since childhood and spent most of his non-writing career in the aerospace and defense industry. He administers the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award contest for Baen Books and the National Space Society, is a member of SFWA, the National Space Society of North Texas, a Launch Pad Astronomy workshop graduate, and is the Science Track coordinator for the Fencon convention. He lives near Dallas with his wife, a needy dog and two spoiled cats.
About the Narrator
Pamela Quevillon is a reader who has been falling hard into books her entire life. She narrates her on Escape Pod, and hosts Story Time on Twitch every school night. As StarStryder, she reads classic fiction and hopes you’ll be as reluctant to put down your headphones as she is to put down the pages.